President Donald Trump on Friday criticized James Comey just hours after news broke that his attorneys have attempted to limit the former FBI director’s role in the obstruction of justice case against the president.
Trump’s criticism stems from a letter by two Republican senators, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who say Comey decided not to bring charges against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton months before the investigation into her use of a private email system had concluded.
Trump fired Comey on May 9 under the auspices of the FBI director mishandling the investigation into Clinton. The president would later say Comey’s focus on the investigation into Russian election meddling played a role in him firing the law enforcement official.
Wow, looks like James Comey exonerated Hillary Clinton long before the investigation was over…and so much more. A rigged system!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 1, 2017
“Conclusion first, fact-gathering second—that’s no way to run an investigation. The FBI should be held to a higher standard than that, especially in a matter of such great public interest and controversy,” Grassley and Graham wrote.
On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters, “If it is as accurate as they say it is, that would certainly give cause and reason that Jim Comey was not the right person to lead the FBI.”
Alone, the Grassley/Graham letter and Trump’s tweet are newsworthy. But their timing evokes questions about machinations behind the scenes.
The first issue is Grassley. Last week, the Iowa Republican tweeted that Trump had called him to assure the senator that he’s “pro ethanol.” Iowa, of course, produces billions of dollars worth of corn each year, 53 percent of which is used to produce ethanol, according to the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. This accounts for roughly 3.5 percent of Iowa’s GDP.
Just had ph call from Pres Trump + he assured me he's pro ethanol +I'm free 2 the ppl of Iowa he's standing by his campaign PROMISE
— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) August 30, 2017
Grassley’s tweet about a positive phone call from Trump prompted widespread news coverage due to the fact that the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Grassley leads, is investigating Donald Trump Jr. as part of its ongoing probe into Russia’s election interference.
To sum up: Over the course of a week, Trump called Grassley to assure him that he backs a major industry in his state while the committee Grassley leads is preparing to interview his son about colluding with Russian operatives. Then Grassley releases a letter revealing information that paints Comey in a negative light. That alone should give the American people pause.
Then comes Trump’s tweet.
The president has openly criticized Comey repeatedly in the past, so that alone is not particularly newsworthy—at least not compared to everything else that happens these days. What’s important is the context.
Just hours before Trump’s tweet, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Trump’s attorneys laid out their initial arguments to Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor leading the Justice Department’s Russia investigation, for why the president did not obstruct justice by firing Comey.
Their argument is basically that Trump, as president, has the power to fire the FBI director if he so chooses, which is true. However, it excludes the fact that Trump may still have attempted to obstruct the Russia investigation by firing Comey. It all comes down to the president’s intent—that’s what makes obstruction of justice cases so difficult to prosecute.
However, it is the second part of the Trump legal team’s argument that brings Trump’s Comey tweet into new light. According to WSJ, citing information from unnamed sources, the attorneys submitted a second memo to Mueller in which they “outlined why Mr. Comey would make an unsuitable witness, calling him prone to exaggeration, unreliable in congressional testimony, and the source of leaks to the news media.”
In other words, Trump’s legal team doesn’t want Comey to testify against Trump. And Trump, meanwhile, is publicly disparaging Comey as part of a system “rigged” against him, furthering the argument that he is unfit to testify in the case against Trump.
Depending on how the investigation progresses, this Trump tweet may be one for the history books.